by Hovey Brock
FREIGHT AND VOLUME | APRIL 20 – MAY 25, 2018
A restless intellect, James Hyde has spent the better part of his career investigating the conventions of painting. That inquiry has followed several paths. On one, he has a practice of using non-traditional materials to create two-dimensional compositions, such as chair webbing tacked to the wall, or painting on Styrofoam, glass sheets, metal, and more. Following another, he conflates painting with sculpture and furniture to create hybrid objects. His most consistent practice of late, however, has been to break down the conventions by which we read images—be they abstract or representational—through a combination of paintings and photographs. West, Hyde’s latest exhibition, consists largely of these composites, but the artist adds a layer of complexity by forcing us to consider how these images interact within their architectural setting.
In West, Hyde poses a number of questions about painting and, more broadly, art. To begin, how are we to read these paintings? Are they abstract, or are they representational? Both? All of the images consist of inkjet-print photographs of treeless desert landscapes, perhaps from America’s southwest, painted over with acrylics. Some Hyde treated with geometrical figures painted in acrylics—squares, circles, ellipses, stripes, and so forth—that play with the physical dimensions of the images’ supports. One of the show’s standouts, Crossing (Yellow) (2013) combines landscapes of arid hills and water, arranged horizontally around a central white and yellow stripe, while a second stripe bisects the painting diagonally from top left to bottom right. The yellow of the bands is keyed off of a small bush of the same color in the lower, upside-down landscape, while hints of white appear throughout both photographic images. In this painting, the abstract reading of the stripes dominates the landscape cues that we would normally follow in a photograph. Instead of noticing the landscapes first, we see geometric patterns of stripes and polygons, some of which happen to have photographic details within them.
Other works combine landscape photographs with overlays of gestural painting. In these pieces, our reading tends toward spatial illusion but the painting obliterates any recognizable elements that would point us toward a representational outcome. Instead, the illusion of space is not unlike the painterly cubism of Willem de Kooning’s Easter Monday (1955 – 56), in which each distinct gesture creates its own plane, the erasures acting as a form of passage. Shadowful (2016) reads primarily as black and blue brushstrokes hovering over an indeterminate ground that clearly contains photographic details, but no definite landscape image.
In addition to the illusion of space in the paintings themselves, Hyde brings the actual exhibition space into play, by virtue of the artworks’ placement. For example, Hyde hung the paintings in the space in unusual ways, such as with Angler (2018) a small, diamond-shaped piece that almost touches the ceiling. He also changed up the distribution: sometimes arranging the paintings in tight formation, as on the south wall of Freight and Volume’s inner gallery, or else giving a painting an entire wall where he could have fit more, as with Wired (2017) a piece slightly over six feet square. Did he intend us to read the paintings serially, collectively, or both? A serial reading would emphasize the images on the surfaces of the works, whereas a collective reading, by contrasting the shape of the supports, would make us feel their physical presence. By deliberately making the distribution of the works on the walls an issue, Hyde accentuates the inherent image/object dualism that abstraction exposes within painting.
In addition to the paintings, Hyde installed colored glass circles on the wall, an old fan blade underneath a radiator, strips of concrete on the ceiling and the floor, and painted disks all around. How do these objects relate to the paintings? Did Hyde intend for us to read them as art by virtue to their proximity to the paintings? In forcing us to consider not just the gallery walls but also the floor, the ceiling, and the “dead spaces” where there was no art, was he using them to activate the entire negative architectural space to bring it to our awareness, thereby changing the affect of the paintings in that space?
Hyde recently wrote a long essay for the September 2017 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, “Against Space,” on the very notion of space as an evolving concept tightly linked to changes in our thinking about science, architecture, and mathematics. In the essay, Hyde states that our notion of “space” in art is not an actual experience but an invocation of a convention, which depends on a complex and dynamic set of institutional markers. If that interpretation can be applied to his own work, it would appear that the point of West is to expose the assumptions underlying the convention of space: how we construct our experience of architectural space; how our reflexes, trained by linear perspective, map representations of three-dimensional scenes—landscapes, portraits, or interiors—onto flat surfaces; how we can read flat non-representational images as illusionistic; and the ways we interpret art objects differently from non-art objects. Hyde is not offering any alternatives to these perceptual and conceptual habits. Rather, he is opening our eyes to them, allowing us to see a little more clearly.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.